What to Do if Your Dog Is Untrainable

boston terrier near chewed-up doorIf your dog’s behavior is out of control despite your efforts to train them, you may begin to feel like your dog is untrainable. However, we do not believe that this is true. Any dog can be trained, but it does take a lot of time, effort, and patience on the part of the owner. It may not be a walk in the park, but it can certainly be done.

There are many factors that can cause a dog to be unruly as well as reasons for why training doesn’t seem to stick. You can often see a significant change in your dog’s behavior just by making sure they are properly exercised (both physically and mentally). It’s also important to use appropriate training methods and avoid making certain mistakes, like inadvertently rewarding undesirable behavior.

There are a few training tools that can help you manage your dog’s behavior if you use them correctly. Head collars, disruptive devices, and the right rewards can be effective tools for training. Finally, don’t be afraid to consult a dog trainer or animal behaviorist; these professionals can help you change your dog’s behavior for the better.

We’ll discuss the many different approaches you can take and common mistakes to avoid to solve your dog’s behavior issues.

Exercise

Exercise is incredibly important for a dog’s physical and mental well-being. Dogs that don’t get enough exercise can often feel bored and end up taking that frustration out on your shoes or your couch cushions.

However, dogs that get ample exercise tend to be calmer and better behaved. They’re less likely to look for something naughty to do and they’re also easier to train. Exercise gets out pent-up energy, which means dogs can focus better and be less distracted during training sessions.

Mental Stimulation

Just as important as exercise is mental stimulation. Exercise helps get rid of excess physical energy, but it doesn’t challenge your dog’s brain. If your dog rarely has to challenge their mind, then this may result in boredom that leads to unruly behavior.

There are many different ways you can offer mental stimulation to your dog. One of them is simply working on training, both basic obedience training and trick training. Learning a new skill challenges your dog’s ability to solve problems (they must figure out, with your guidance, what to do to get the reward).

Training is not the only way to offer mental stimulation, though. There are many puzzle games you can buy in stores that have varying degrees of difficulty. You can also play games with items you already have at home.

Some examples of these brain games include lining a muffin tin with tennis balls and hiding treats under some of them. You can also take three cups, hide a treat under one of them, and then mix the cups up. Your dog has to choose which cup the treats are under. Even simpler, you can hide a treat in one of your hands and ask your dog to pick which hand the treat is in.

All of these games are meant to exercise your dog’s brain while simultaneously being fun. They don’t take up a lot of your time but will benefit your dog’s well-being and reduce destructive or unruly behaviors caused by boredom.

Behavior Outlets

german shepherd lies in sandbox

As much as you may dislike chewing, digging, and the like, these are natural behaviors for your dog. Instead of trying to eradicate these behaviors, you should give your dog an appropriate outlet for them.

Chewing should be addressed with appropriate toys like Kongs and Nylabones, and your dog should have access to at least a few toys at all times. If your dog doesn’t have these options, then they’re far more likely to chew up something else.

Because dogs grow bored of their toys, you should keep some hidden away. Every week or two, take out the hidden toys and put away those that your dog previously had access to. Keeping your dog interested in their toys means they’re more likely to grab a toy to play with than a shoe.

If your dog is a serial digger, offering an appropriate place to dig is often much easier than stopping the digging. You can get a sandbox and teach your pup to dig only in this area. Both you and your dog will be happy with this arrangement.

The Best Training Methods for Untrainable Dogs

Though physical and mental exercise are vital to your dog’s well-being and can help reduce unruliness, they cannot replace training. Only training can teach your dog appropriate behaviors.

Many people who label their dogs as untrainable feel this way because they have tried to train their dogs but haven’t seen the results they were hoping for. Talking about training may seem like beating around the bush to those who feel like they’ve already tried everything.

However, there are some mistakes people can make with training that cause it to fail. We’re going to talk about which training methods are most effective for unruly dogs as well as the types of mistakes that can set you back in your training.

Use Positive Reinforcement

Some people will try to teach their dogs what not to do by punishing them or saying “no!” when the dog does something wrong. There are a few problems with this approach. The first is that the dog does not know what to do instead. Even if the dog stops the undesirable behavior, they may simply replace it with a different unwanted behavior.

It’s much easier to teach a dog what to do than what not to do. This is where positive reinforcement comes in. If you want your dog to stop jumping, telling them no and admonishing them may not get you far.

In fact, it may make things worse because what your dog often wants from you is attention. Whether that attention is positive or negative doesn’t always matter to your dog; any attention can be rewarding.

Instead, you can use positive reinforcement to teach your dog to sit when you come into the house. You can use treats as a reward or your attention. Ignore your dog’s attempts to jump on you by turning your back and not acknowledging your dog at all until they stop (this is where patience comes in). You can then ask your dog to sit and reward them with your attention or treats (or both).

We mentioned that punishment can be rewarding to some dogs because it is a form of attention, but that isn’t the only reason that it’s a bad idea. Punishment, especially when physical, can ruin your bond with your dog.

Your dog can become afraid of you or even become aggressive as a defense mechanism. Punishment may also lead to more severe behavioral issues such as anxiety or submissive urination. Though some people can have success in getting their dogs to obey out of fear, it is ultimately damaging to the relationship and not a worthwhile method of dog training.

Positive reinforcement motivates your dog to obey by offering them a reward, which also helps them associate obeying you with a positive outcome. Thus, they are more likely to continue obeying you due to the possibility of a positive consequence.

Clicker Training

treats and clicker above dog

Clicker training is a great option for training challenging dogs. This is because some people make the mistake of rewarding their dogs too late, so the dog may not associate the reward with the right behavior.

Clicker training uses a device that makes a unique clicking sound. The first step of this training is to teach your dog that the clicking sound means they get a reward. Then, it is used to mark desirable behaviors.

When working on a skill, your dog will know exactly when they have performed the action that earns the reward. Of course, this does mean that you have to have good timing with your clicks; it is still possible to be late.

However, clicker training is fairly easy to pick up for both humans and dogs, and it is more exact with marking behaviors than simply responding with a “good boy” and a treat. This accuracy is great for helping problem dogs grasp exactly which behaviors get rewarded and which do not.

Constant Supervision

If you have a dog that seems to be constantly misbehaving, then you should be constantly supervising that dog. Remember, your dog is just a dog; they were not born knowing how to be the perfect, well-mannered companion for a human.

It is your responsibility to teach your dog appropriate behavior and it is also your responsibility to keep an eye on your dog. If your dog tears up a couch cushion because you weren’t paying attention to them, this is your fault for not properly supervising your dog. Until you accept responsibility, you will not be able to remedy this issue.

So, if your dog is the type to do naughty things while you aren’t looking, the key is to always be looking. It can be helpful to tether your dog to you with a leash. This makes it easier to go about your day while also being able to prevent or interrupt unwanted behaviors.

Until an unruly dog shows progress with behavior, they should not be given too much freedom. You need to be around to redirect unwanted behaviors into acceptable ones. For times when you’re unable to provide constant supervision, you should look into crate training your dog.

Consistency Is Key

We cannot stress enough how important consistency is. If your dog isn’t allowed to jump on you when you’re wearing nice clothes then your dog also shouldn’t be allowed to do so when you’re in tattered work clothes. If your dog is allowed to do something some of the time but not all of the time, then you’re sending mixed messages that will confuse your dog.

Similarly, your family has to all be on the same page. If one family member lets the dog pull while walking but the other does not, it will take the dog far longer to understand what proper leash manners are. Inconsistent training and feedback will slow down your dog’s ability to learn desirable behavior.

Training Tools

If your dog is so off the walls you can hardly get them to focus on you (even after exercise), there are some training tools that may be able to help you. We’ve chosen training tools that are both effective and humane.

You might be tempted to turn to something like a shock collar or choke collar, but these can have the same issues we explained earlier with punishment. Not only that, but your dog can often tell when they aren’t wearing these collars and will continue to commit offenses when not wearing them.

Head Collars

tan dog wearing head halter

Head collars, also called head halters, are a great option that give you control over your dog without relying on pain or excessive force. Instead, the collar applies pressure behind the neck and around the dog’s muzzle. This pressure is not painful, but because dogs have a natural propensity to pull against pressure, it can be used to your advantage.

For instance, pulling forward and upward on the leash will cause a dog wearing a head halter to sit. You can pull more firmly to close the dog’s mouth, which can prevent barking and biting. Head collars can also be used to train skills like down and focus.

Not only that, but this device is great for teaching leash manners because it is effective at reducing pulling. You will not find yourself stumbling forward, holding onto the leash for dear life. Instead, your dog’s head will be turned back toward you once they reach the end of the leash.

Just like other types of collars, many dogs will be able to tell the difference between when they are wearing these and when they are not. However, the point of head collars is to help you teach your dog what to do. They are more effective than shock collars and choke chains which focus on teaching your dog what not to do.

Because the point of the head collar is to help you teach your dog skills, it needs to be paired with positive reinforcement. Once your dog is made to sit or stop pulling or whatever it may be, you need to reward them.

Eventually, your dog will understand what each command means and do them without you providing guidance with the halter. At this point, you can begin to wean your dog off of the halter.

Interrupters

Did you know that you can startle a dog out of a behavior? Doggy daycare workers commonly use this technique to prevent dog fights when they see one dog staring at another for too long.

They’ll do something like drop a metal dog food bowl or bang two bowls together. The clanging sound is unexpected and startles the dog enough to interrupt a behavior but not cause any lasting fear.

At home, you can use something like a soda can filled with pennies. Shake it to interrupt a behavior like barking, and then reward the dog for being quiet. You can also use air horns or an ultrasonic device; anything that can disrupt your dog without causing fear.

Whatever cacophonous device you choose to interrupt unwanted behaviors, you must follow up with redirection and positive reinforcement. Otherwise, your dog is not going to learn anything and may go right back to doing the behavior you just interrupted.

The Right Rewards and Their Timing

Rewards are a type of tool and it’s important to talk about them. Rewarding may seem as simple as giving your dog a treat, but that isn’t always the case. You need to make sure your rewards are truly desirable, are timed appropriately, and aren’t being given for unwanted behavior. To avoid mistakes, you need to understand what your dog finds rewarding.

Food

Many dogs are food-oriented and love treats, which makes them a great reward. However, it’s helpful to provide variety. This will keep the reward from becoming predictable or even boring.

When it comes to food, there are also high-value treats and low-value treats. High-value treats are anything your dog goes gaga for. They are usually things like chicken and other meat, cheese, fish, or other types of fresh food. Low-value treats are things like kibble or baked treats; your dog still likes them, but they aren’t as exciting as chicken.

Play

Some dogs are more motivated by play than treats. For these dogs, you should use games like fetch or tug as your reward (if you play chase, make sure you’re the one being chased!).

Just as with food, you need to keep things interesting. Dogs do get bored with their toys, especially if they have constant access to them. Therefore, you should reserve a couple of toys that your dog only gets to play with as a reward during training.

Make sure to rotate between these special toys to keep them interesting. The more often your dog sees it, the less exciting and thus the lower value the toy will have for your dog. That’s why it’s good to switch between toys whenever your dog seems to be losing motivation.

Does Your Dog Like the Reward?

We just talked about two types of rewards that most dogs love. However, there are some actions humans take that they think dogs find rewarding that aren’t. Even petting has a time and a place.

Do you like being touched 24/7? Do you like it when someone tries to hold your hand while you’re busy preparing dinner? Probably not. The same is true for dogs. While some dogs may love to receive pets as a reward, others are indifferent to it, and sticking to treats or toys is a much better option.

Similarly, you need to pay attention to the way you pet your dog. A dog may enjoy being petted, but only if it is smooth, long strokes. Some people like to repeatedly pat their dog on the head, which, while not painful, can be unpleasant. This type of “reward” won’t motivate a dog at all and may even feel like a punishment to some dogs.

Rewarding Unwanted Behaviors

We mentioned this before, but it is possible to reward unwanted behaviors. Sometimes, punishment is rewarding for your dog because it is a form of attention. In other cases, you may reward unwanted behaviors because you’ve timed your reward poorly.

In still other cases, you may give your dog attention or treats because it seems like the only way to get them to stop doing a certain thing. Instead, it’s reinforcing the behavior and making the dog more likely to do it in the future because they know they can get treats or pets for it.

Consult a Trainer or Animal Behaviorist

lab performs sit for woman

Many dog owners can benefit from consulting with a trainer or certified applied animal behaviorist, but this is especially true for those with unruly dogs. Let’s talk about the differences between the two and what they can do for you.

Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists

You could almost think of an animal behaviorist as a psychologist for your dog. These professionals have Ph.Ds in animal science and are very knowledgeable about why dogs behave the way they do and what makes them tick.

They understand how dogs communicate and what they are trying to say. An animal behaviorist will be able to observe your dog’s behavior and your response to it. They can tell you why your dog is doing what they’re doing as well as what mistakes you’re making.

They may also be able to determine if there’s a possible medical issue at play that is causing your dog to act out in certain ways. They can then come up with a plan to help you address your dog’s behavior.

Animal behaviorists are sort of like doggy psychologists and trainers all wrapped up into one. Most will either work with you directly to solve your dog’s behavioral problems or point you to a trainer they trust who can help you.

Dog Trainers

Though dog trainers can also be quite knowledgeable, they don’t have Ph.Ds. However, a good trainer will have a firm grasp of dog behavior and body language. Even if they can’t pinpoint the “why” as well as an animal behaviorist, they can often successfully help you train your dog to have appropriate manners.

A dog trainer can help you correct the mistakes you’re making and offer solutions for dealing with behaviors that are out of your realm of expertise. They can help you teach your dog to be a more obedient, well-behaved member of the family.

Your Dog Is Not Untrainable

Training a dog is a lot of work, especially if your dog is out of control. It takes a lot of patience and dedication. Luckily, it isn’t impossible, even if it feels like your dog is untrainable.

First of all, you should make sure your dog is getting enough exercise, both for their body and their brain. Dogs that do not receive enough physical or mental stimulation tend to get bored and take out this energy and frustration on objects in your home. However, give your dog the exercise they need and they tend to be calmer and easier to train.

Speaking of training, nothing can replace it. It’s best to use positive reinforcement because punishment can have negative effects and may even be rewarding. Believe it or not, some dogs just want attention, and punishment counts.

If you’re struggling to train your dog, some tools can help you. Head collars are great because they give you a lot of control over your dog without causing pain. You can use them to teach your dog skills like sit, down, focus, heel, and off. They can even be used to prevent barking.

Finally, don’t be afraid to consult a dog trainer or animal behaviorist. For especially severe cases, animal behaviorists can be helpful because they are sort of like doggy psychologists who can explain why your dog is acting the way they are.

Dog trainers can also be very helpful; while not as studied as behaviorists, they can help you come up with a training plan for your dog. They’ll guide you through how to train certain skills and what to do about your dog’s current unwanted behaviors.

No matter which path you choose, we know that with diligence and attention, you will find the training that works for your dog.